We pulled up outside the train station in Bangalore expecting chaos, and chaos is exactly what we found.
We climbed out of our Uber to find ourselves surrounded by hundreds of people. Far from being able to determine exactly where we were supposed to go, we couldn't even find the entrance to the station!
Within 30 seconds, a uniformed man had appeared from nowhere to ask us where we were going. 'Mysore, but we don't have tickets'. He pointed. 'Go buy your tickets there. the train leaves at 1015 from platform 10, tickets cost 60r'. Thank you helpful uniform man! He immediately turned and left, no sign of waiting for the obligatory 'tip' that we've experienced so often in other countries (I'm looking at you, Italy), and that we'd read to expect in India.
Five minutes later, we were armed with 2 unreserved tickets to Mysore at grand cost of $2.40NZD total, and were nervously boarding a train, hoping a) that it was going to Mysore, and b) that we actually had tickets for it.
The train ride to Mysore
Despite our trepidation, the train itself was great. There were large luggage racks that fit our packs, and the seats were padded leather bench seats. We had windows that opened, and there were fans once the trains turned on. It was pretty similar to our train from Colombo to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, and from Bangkok to Auytthaya.
There were two highlights from our three hour train ride from Bangalore to Mysore. The first, undoubtedly, was the vendors. We got on to the train having not had breakfast, so were delighted to find men wandering up and down the carts selling delicious samosas and sweet chai. It was a really cool experience to be chowing down on tasty local delicacies while rattling along the rails - it felt like being in a film or a novel.
The second highlight was making new friends. Despite the abundance of tourists in India, we often find ourselves the centre of attention. People stare at us, take photos of us, want selfies, and want to talk to us about where we're from and what we think of India. At times, it can become intrusive and unwelcome - particularly for me when Zev isn't around. But most of the time, people are kind and friendly, and just want to have a chat. Not long after the train started moving, the guy sitting opposite us struck up a conversation. Abdul was a Mysore local who was living in Bangalore, and was going home to visit his family. The train ride passed quickly as we talked about his life and ours, and a little about the countryside and what to do in Mysore. Abdul even translated for the other train passengers who wanted to ask us questions but didn't speak enough English. One man told me I looked like the wife of the ex-Indian Prime Minister from many years ago. I chose to believe he meant I looked like her then, not now that she's in her 60s...
When we arrived in Mysore, Abdul helped us to sort out a tuk tuk to our accommodation, and more importantly, gave us his login details for the Indian Rail System online booking platform. We've been fruitlessly trying to set up an account since arriving in India, but with no success. We keep getting stuck in a 'You can't log in because there's no account linked to that email address', and 'You can't create a new account because an account already exists with that email address' cycle of madness. Luckily, now that we have Abdul's log in, we've successfully booked two more train journeys - hooray!
Wandering the city
Having checked in and dropped our bags, we headed out for an afternoon of exploring Mysore. Naturally, we started with lunch. We headed to a cafe around the corner from our guesthouse and enjoyed a delicious vegetarian curry lunch with breads and drinks, which set us back a wallet destroying $8.
From there, we had a mission. We needed to book tickets on the night bus to Hampi in 2 days' time. None of the Indian bus booking websites accept overseas credit cards, so we were forced to go to the bus company's office and book in person. During the 1.6km walk to the bus station, we got a brief overview of the city. First, our map took us down a side alley with the overpowering aroma of urine. Near the entry to the street, we saw a public toilet, which we assumed was the source of the smell. We noticed that the toilets seemed to just empty straight into a rather manky looking creek running down the side of the alleyway. Shortly after we concluded that may not have been the source of the smell. We passed about 20 men in the street, and every single one of them was pissing on the side of a building. The only one who wasn't was a man standing on the back of a ute, who yelled to us, 'This street is very dirty!'. Thanks mate. After emerging for the ablution centre of Mysore, we walked through some bustling street markets and through back alleys crammed with shops selling all sorts of interesting goodies (including one shop dedicated solely to selling replacement suitcase wheels - very niche).
Booking the bus tickets was painless - we were given instructions to return to the booking office in 2 days' time at 8.30pm, and we would be taken to the bus. Easy.
We walked back on a slightly different route, avoiding Wee St, taking in the sights of the city. We passed Mysore Palace (the absolute jewel of Mysore, but more on that later), and nearby we passed a man doing tattoos on the side of the street. He had a selection of stamps, which he put on your skin, and then tattooed the design on with the tattoo gun he had sitting in a jar of what I assume was alcohol on his blanket on the sidewalk. And before you say, 'Who in their right mind is getting tattoos like that??', as we walked past, a woman was having one done on her wrist. Good luck lady...
Further along on our walk, we passed a row of men at desks on the sidewalk with typewriters. Zev figured out that they were translators, and you could bring them documents to have them translated into English.
We finished our day with another top notch dinner at a nearby restaurant with about 20 staff and only 2 diners - us. This must be what being a celebrity feels like...
Mysore Palace and a walking tour
Our second day in Mysore was action packed. We started our day with a call to New Zealand to wish our niece Pippa a very happy 6th birthday. She was rather distracted by her new presents and was excited to be going out for a pancake dinner, so it wasn't a terribly successful conversation, but it was great to catch up nonetheless. In order to feel like we weren't missing out on all the fun, we took ourselves off for a pancake breakfast too.
After stuffing our faces, we jumped in a tuk tuk and headed to Mysore Palace to go in and check it out.
As we entered the palace, we couldn't help being impressed by the huge structure. Although many people probably don't recognise the name, they might recognise pictures - it's one of the most popular tourist attractions in India after the Taj Mahal, with over 6 million annual visitors.
This is not the original Mysore Palace. Over the years, the palace was built and rebuilt, modified and improved, until the last-most-recent palace iteration caught fire during a wedding celebration in 1897. Following this, the Queen Regent commissioned a British architect Henry Irwin to rebuild the palace. Completed in 1912, the stone structure in place today has stood since.
The place was full of school groups, so the crowds and barriers dictated the direction of your tour of the palace. First stop was Gonbe Thotti, or the Doll's Pavillion (shudder), showcasing 19th and early 20th century dolls, as well as a collection of ceremonial items and gifts from other nations. The pavillion also contains an elephant howdah, which I thought was going to be a stuffed head of an elephant named Howdah. Actually it was a kind of saddle or frame for carrying people on an elephant's back, decorated with 84kgs of gold.
The Kalyana Mantapa, or Marriage Hall was the next stop, and was definitely a sight to see. Set beneath the 5 storey dome of the palace, the ceiling is made of stained glass depicting peacock motifs, and there is a huge chandelier hanging in the middle of the octagonal room.
After passing by a huge open courtyard, we headed up the stairs to the Ambavilasa, or King's Audience Hall. The room is filled with ornately gilded columns, stained glass ceilings and chandeliers, and contains a mosaic floor embellished with semi-precious stones.
The final stop is the Public Durbar Hall, the absolute highlight of the palace. 155ft (47m) long and 42ft (12.5m) wide, the room is an endless maze of turquoise and gold arches, opening into an expansive balcony that looks out over the palace grounds and beyond.
Once we were back outside, we headed around the back of the palace to continue our tour. Zev decided he needed a pit stop, so he left me sitting under a tree while he went in search of a toilet. When he returned 5 minutes later, he saw a huge group of Indian adults and children crowded around something, and chuckled to himself, thinking how funny it would be if I was in the middle of it.
Of course I was in the middle of it. 30 seconds after Zev had gone, I was approached by a teacher on a school trip, asking me where I was from and the usual battery of questions. As soon as I answered and it became clear that I wasn't going to maul anyone, the entire class of 40-odd students and 8-odd teachers descended. While they were all lovely and polite, it was terrifying. I was sitting down, and they were all standing up, crowded around me, each asking me a barrage of questions. They started asking me if I could make a wish for their school and I didn't really understand what they were asking - I wasn't sure if they wanted a donation, or if they were asking me to pray for them... Thankfully, at that moment, Zev arrived to save the day. We eventually figured out that they were telling us that it was their school's 75th birthday, and they were hosting some kind of workshop. They wanted to record a video of us wishing the school a happy birthday, introducing the workshop, and making some kind of wish for the school on its birthday. I forced Zev to take the speaking role, and I just stood there, smiling like an idiot and wanting to die. He dutifully wished and welcomed, and said that he wished the school 75 more years of birthdays.
With our video recorded, the school group moved on, only to be replaced by a group of teenage boys wanting selfies. We indulged them for a couple of minutes, and then made our excuses and moved on.
From there, we entered another part of the palace that required a separate entrance fee, and to be honest, we could have given this a miss. More expensive than the main palace, the remainder of the tour was a shabby collection of royal artifacts, although it did include a free audio tour which helped to put the artifacts into context. Our advice if you're visiting though - skip this part - the main palace is where the real enjoyment is.
With our palace tour complete, we stopped for some quick, side of the road smoothies, before continuing on the the Art Gallery. This was another interesting experience, again filled with school groups. Everyone, including the teachers, seemed far more interested in us than anything on the walls. Upon entry, we were ushered up to the top floor to view some musical instruments, and instructed to make our way back down to the ground floor to exit. While there were some nice pieces on display, a lack of signage and adequate lighting made it difficult for us to know exactly what we were looking at.
When we returned to the ground floor to exit, a staff member kept insisting we needed to go up to the top floor before looking at the ground floor. An amusing Fawlty Towers-esque skit took place with us trying to tell him we'd already been up, and him insisting that we hadn't. Eventually we won, and high tailed it out of there.
Later that evening, we headed out for a guided walking tour of Mysore. We met our guide, Sachin, and the other couple joining us on the tour (Sarah and Neil, who were from Manchester).
Sachin did a fantastic job of filling us in on the history of the local area. Mysore served as the capital of the Kingdom of Mysore for nearly 6 centuries, from 1399 to 1956. The kingdom was ruled by the Wadiyar Dynasty, except for a brief period of time in the 1760s and 70s. Mysore was the capital of the Princely State of Mysore within the British Indian Empire until India became independent in 1947.
We walked through the city looking at historic buildings and statues until we ended up at Devaraja Market, Mysore's bustling main marketplace. Sachin took us in, showing us through the fruit section and giving us a taste of Mysore bananas (which taste like apples), then the vegetable section, banana plant section (but not bananas - it's here that they use the rest of the plant, such as the leaves, stalks and flowers), flower market, and section where you can buy offerings for the temples. The whole place was sensory overload, with bright colours, people yelling, dogs and cows everywhere, and the smell of Jasmine mixing with cow shit. A truly Indian experience!
As we left the market, Sachin gave us Mysore pak, a local delicacy made from chickpeas, butter and sugar, creating a fudge-like snack. It was melt in your mouth, harden your arteries delicious.
We wandered further down the street to our next stop. As we walked, the heavens opened, and it began to bucket down rain. We arrived at our destination just in time. We climbed into a roadside stall as the thunder and lightning rumbled and flashed, watching the streets begin to flood in front of us. Seconds later, we were each handed a paper plate containing a cracked open samosa covered with toppings. After the first bite, I thought, 'This is spicy, but delicious!'. I shoveled some more in. The flavours were incredible. By the time I had finished, I was sweating uncontrollably, shaking, and couldn't stop the tears from running down my face. Everyone thought this was extremely amusing, because no one else found it spicy (although the English guy didn't count - he didn't try it). I'm convinced the guy spiked mine with extra chilli for a laugh.
A bottle of water and two blocks later, we were handed our next snack - a puffed rice dish called churumuri. With some trepidation, I ate a forkful. Feeling no ill effect, I continued to polish off the cone of rice, mixed with coriander, onion, tomato, chilli, lime and peanuts. At this stage, I wasn't sure I could actually taste anything any more...
Our final stop on the tour was a dosa shop, where we were treated to a kind of savoury pancake filled with curried potatoes. To round out the meal, we enjoyed a cup of chicory coffee.
We walked back to our accommodation, fat and happy after an excellent tour.
A disappointing second day
We woke up, knowing that our second day in Mysore was probably not going to be ideal. We checked out of our accommodation at 11am, leaving our bags with the owner so that we could continue our tour of the city until our bus ride out at 8.30pm that night. We both find travel days a little stressful, and not having a room to go back and take solace in during the worst heat of the day was playing on our minds. Given that this was to be our first overnight Indian bus ride, there were a significant number of unknowns, and beyond-our-controls for the day, and that's never a good start.
To get us off on the right foot, we opted for a solid brunch at a western cafe. This was almost our last good decision of the day...
From there, we decided to try a new (to us) app that had been suggested by our guide the night before, called Ola. It's like Uber, but for tuk tuks. We booked one, and within 2 minutes, he pulled up. After a confusing discussion about where we wanted to go, he insisted that Ola doesn't go there (whatever that means), and tried to charge us triple what the app was telling us the cost should be. For some crazy reason, we ended up staying in the tuk tuk, having not really agreed on a price or even really a destination.
Our goal was to head to Chamundi Hill, 1000m above sea level. Reported to have excellent views over the city, we wanted to go up to check it out, and to kill some time during the day. Despite the confusion, our tuk tuk driver dropped us off and agreed to wait for us while we checked it out.
As is usually the way outside temples, the whole carpark was filled with vendors hawking everything imaginable, and monkeys were running around terrorising children carrying flowers and generally being assholes. We managed to find our way to the ticket booth for Chamundeshwari Temple, the main temple at the top of the hill.
Our advice: give it a big miss. Give the temple a miss, give the whole hill a miss. We found it noisy, crowded, dirty and depressing. We couldn't find a good view anywhere (although that's not to say there isn't one - we just didn't have the patience to do an exhaustive search). We were harrassed constantly, and not always in a friendly way to buy things and take selfies. The inside of the temple was the least religious experience imaginable, and I had to get out of the line to go inside because I was worried about being crushed or trampled. Slightly dejected, we found our tuk tuk driver and asked to leave.
He detoured us to see the Nandi statue on the way back down the hill. The Nandi statue is over 350 years old, and carved from a single boulder. The nandi (or bull) is considered the mode of transport of Shiva, so people come here to make offerings. The statue was actually pretty cool, and a definite high point of all Chamundi Hill based activities.
As we headed back to the main road at the bottom of the hill, we asked the driver to pull over to a roadside attraction that caught our eye - the Mysore Sand Sculpture Museum. How could we pass that by?? Full of sand sculptures, including a 15ft high statue of Ganesh, the museum was a pretty great way to pass 20 minutes.
As soon as we were back on the road, another museum attracted our attention - the Guinness World Record Seashell Museum. This gem contained the works of Radha Mallappa, an artist who is the current world record holder for the largest seashell art in the world - an 11ft x 18ft Ganesha. The artist herself was there, but had little to say about her artwork.
From there we returned to town in search of lunch. Our tuk tuk driver dropped us off, only slightly robbing us for the privilege of his company for a couple of hours. No sooner than we were out of the tuk tuk, we were swamped by hawkers and tour guides trying to get us to buy things and tour the palace with them. Given our unpleasant experience up Chamundi Hill, we got as far away as possible, while trying to find somewhere for a cold drink and some food. We found somewhere to hide out, and formulated a plan to keep ourselves busy in the afternoon, with no room to return to.
We decided on a mall. There was one not far from where we were, and it advertised a cinema on the outside. We thought a movie might be a good way to pass some time and hide from the heat of the afternoon.
Shopping in India is also an interesting experience. As we went into the mall, we ducked into a shop called Pantaloons, which is a chain store with men's, women's and children's clothing at moderate prices. I was interested in having a look around, but as has been my experience in every shop in India, I was followed around incessantly (whether out of curiosity or because they think I look like a shoplifter, I don't know), until I had to leave because I was driving me crazy.
As we carried on through the mall, we realised that 3/4 of it was boarded up, and it had clearly been a long time since there had been a cinema here. Most of the mall seemed to be made up of advertising for shops and places that couldn't be found here.
Dejected, we headed outside and tried to get a tuk tuk to the Natural History Museum. After a frustrating 3 minute conversation with 3 drivers who all assured us they could take us, but didn't know where the museum was, and wanted to charge us WAY too much money, we gave up and started walking back to the hotel. The tuk tuk drivers followed us, yelling that they could take us for 'good price', until I lost it and yelled at them, 'NO GO AWAY'. That seemed to do the trick.
With no ideas left, we headed to Cafe Coffee Day, the Indian equivalent of Starbucks, to enjoy some cold drinks, air conditioning and wifi. Imagine our disappointment to discover that the drinks were tepid, there was no air conditioning, no wifi, and no working toilets. At least we could sit down.
Mysore Palace Sound and Light Show
We managed to hang out there for about an hour without going mad before heading back to the palace to catch the sound and light show.
Probably the most famous images of the palace are of it lit up with thousands of festoon lights. Sadly, the whole palace complex is only lit up on Sundays and public holidays, we weren't able to catch it. Every other night though, there is a sound and light show at the palace, and for 15 minutes at the end of it, the palace is lit up.
We arrived at the gates to find the ticket booth closed, and every man and his dog telling us that the palace is only lit up on Sundays. I knew that the light show was every night though, despite everyone telling us it was closed, and then asking for selfies.
As a last ditch effort to at the very least kill some time, we thought we'd try the entrance on the other side of the palace, on the off chance that that was our way in. Bingo. Only one entrance was open, so we snagged our tickets and headed in. We found a spot on the lawn and settled in for the show.
It started promptly, the story told in what we assume was Hindi through speakers on the lawn, with dramatic lighting on the palace timed to match. Despite not understanding a word, it was still beautiful and hugely entertaining. As the 45 minute show wore on, a distant thunderstorm rolled in, bringing with it forks of lightning that lit up the sky, seemingly integrating itself into the storyline.
As the show drew to a close, the whole palace lit up with thousands of individual bulbs, and it was absolutely stunning. I can only imagine what it must be like when the whole complex is lit up.
Feeling incredibly grateful that we'd stuck to our guns and found the show, which was definitely the highlight of a decidedly average day, we grabbed our bags from the accommodation and jumped in a tuk tuk to the bus station for our overnight bus.
Our first overnight bus
We were dropped at the ticket office, and sat down to wait, chatting to a local family who were heading home from a 3 day weekend in Mysore. Soon, they headed off to catch their bus, and we were left chatting with an Italian lady who was having a seemingly terrible time in India with all the complaining she was doing. 15 minutes later, when, as we walked up to the bus, with her complaining the whole time about having to carry her own luggage, we were happy to discover she was on another bus.
The bus itself was interesting. We had caught sleeper buses in South East Asia (only during the day though), but they were nothing like this. As you entered the bus, the right hand side was single bunk beds, and the left hand side was double bunk beds. As in full on, lie flat mattresses. We found our berth, climbed in, and got ourselves situated.
The bus was stiffling, but it was an AC bus so we crossed our fingers for it to kick in once the bus was started. We'd read online about people freezing on overnight buses, so had come prepared - we were both in pants, and had our sleeping bag liners and extra layers on board.
Two hours later, having sweated through all of our clothing, it became apparent that the AC was not a happening thing. While it seemed to be doing a great job of cooling down the aisle, none of it reached into the bunk berths, so if you closed the curtains for privacy and to block out the light, you got no airflow.
To counteract any possible motion sickness, I'd taken a Cyclizine, which combined with my tiredness from being out in the sun all day to knock me out more or less immediately. Add my noise cancelling headphones and I was out like a light, happy to marinade in my own sweat until dawn. Zev, on the other hand, had a miserable night of lying awake sweating and needing to pee...
We assumed we'd be given some kind of warning in the morning when our stop was approaching, so we didn't bother setting alarms or anything. Of course, we had just woken up at 5.30am when we were unceremoniously thrown off the bus in Hospet, some 16kms from our accommodation. Customer service is not the strong point of bus operators.
We found ourselves a tuk tuk driver who agreed to take us to breakfast on the way to check in at our next destination, Sloth Bear Resort in Hampi.
More on that next time!
Lots of love,
S & Z